Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"The Times" It Is a-Changin'

This week the Christian Science Monitor became one of the first major daily newspapers to announce that it was abandoning publication of its daily print edition and going exclusively to an online daily format with publication of a print edition on weekends only. People may be consuming more information than ever before, but they are doing it on their laptops, their iPhones, or their Kindles.

The disappearance of print newspapers is only part of the issue. By and large, newspapers have not done a good job of moving to the online medium. They look like newspapers online, in many cases simply replicating their print edition on a web site. (For more on the Christian Science Monitor and an NPR audio, CLICK HERE.)

Churches are beginning to learn the same lessons and make the same mistakes. More and more congregations are going to online communication and e-newsletters. In many cases it is more in an effort to save money, than to communicate more effectively or to expand the readership base as a missional effort. (Church Councils are persuaded by the “bottom line”.) When the move is made, they often make the same mistakes as newspapers. The online e-news is simply the print edition duplicated online. It generally makes little use of links, blogs or interactive elements. It also tends to follow the same publication schedule as the old newsletter, sending longs blocks of information on a monthly basis instead of short bites in real time.

Why not suggest to your judicatory office a workshop on online newsletters and communication! The times they are a-changin’. ---- Which brings me to an “aside”: As one who lived through the changes of the late 60’s, it’s interesting to listen to Bob Dylan’s song again (click video below) and realize how similar, and yet different, these times are from those.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The K.I.S.S. Principle: Keep it Simple (and Spiritual)

My father used to like reading the old Rube Goldberg cartoons that showed simple tasks being done in the most complex ways. Perhaps it was because my father was raised in a mechanical, industrial society.

As we move into a digital society with its binary foundation, we seem to be rediscovering the beauty of simplicity. The fancy fonts of a decade ago give way to the functional print of the new millennium. The “boom boxes” of the 80’s with all their knobs and buttons and equalizer switches are replaced by the simple, intuitive design of the iPod. The homepage of Google with its uncluttered design replaces pull-down menus and pop-up guides.

The same may be true for congregations that seek to be in mission in the 21st century. Functional simplicity, authenticity and missional focus are the key words for today’s congregations. The KISS principle, in this case, “Keep it Simple and Spiritual” seems to be the theme of the day. The idea of “Simple Church” sees a radical expression in the new monastic movements and house church movements, but the KISS principle applies to more traditional congregations as well. Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger spelled it out a couple of years ago in a book entitled Simple Church. They describe a process consisting of four key values:

  • Clarity: Do leaders and members understand the purpose and mission for which we exist ?
  • Movement: What is the process for developing disciples ?
  • Alignment: Are all your programs in line with and supportive of your purpose and mission?
  • Focus: Are you willing to stop doing things that do not fit your mission? Do new programs fit your mission?

It all boils down to what Stephen R. Covey set forth as a management principle: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” That means keeping everyone focused on the main thing and sometimes getting rid of that which is not the main thing.

Check the video below and then CLICK HERE for more resources.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Change is Good ... You Go First!

That’s the title of a delightful little book from a company called Simple Truths that publishes books that look like children’s books, but have great simple truths for leaders in any organization. (Click here for more information.)

If you want some good tips on leading change in an organization presented in a novel way, watch the short, but interesting, video by clicking here.

If you want a well presented animated preview of the book, a "virtual book", click here.


Friday, January 16, 2009

Making the Most of Short Term Mission Trips

Short term mission trips have become a means of creating mission awareness, building a mission donor base, strengthening outreach commitments of congregations and inspiring personal witness and spiritual growth. They have particular appeal for younger generations that prefer hands on participation, but are popular among Christians of all ages.

These mission trips have also come under criticism in some circles as being “feel good vacations” or one-sided expressions of Western “superiority” – “We have come to help you!”

A new resource from Christianity Today called “Round Trip” may be helpful in working with short term mission groups as they prepare for their experience. It is a 14 week time of preparation focused around five study periods plus practical planning sessions. The approach may be summarized in this quote from the leader’s guide:

"In fact, while the term “missions” can be valuable, it is potentially misleading. If we think that “missions” means that we possess something—whether superior knowledge of the gospel, finances, or skills—that those we are visiting do not have, we are likely to do more harm than good. Most short-term mission trips go to places where the church is already thriving, with a powerful gospel witness and many local skills and resources. Even where the church may not yet exist, God has gone ahead of us to prepare the way in every culture. The term “missions” can be helpful if it reminds us that we are going to join God’s mission, and God’s people already on a mission, in the place we will visit for a short time. It’s important that we prepare our group’s hearts and minds to recognize signs that God is already at work where we are going."

Watch the video clip below and then, if interested, check for additional resources by clicking HERE.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

How the Internet is (Can Be) Changing the Way We Do Church

In an article for the Alban Institute, Andrea Unseem examines the latest Internet innovations and how they are changing the landscape of religion and congregational life today. (Click here for full article.)

The article came to mind following some events this week:
  • A friend reminded me that most congregations continue to plan communications based on a written culture when we are in a digital age.
  • A church worker in my local circuit sent me an email about a blog post I had told the circuit about. “Thanks. I didn’t know how to comment online. It’s the first time I’ve been on a blog.”
  • As a consultant with congregations in stewardship and mission, I find some leaders (mostly younger ones) want everything online and in electronic format, while others (mostly older ones) still want hard copies and printed manuals.
  • Some of the young people who do a great job on congregational web sites express frustration that they can’t seem to move the congregation beyond Web 1.0 (information sharing) to Web 2.0 (social networking).
Unseem says that experiences like this are part of a culture clash in which congregations are having debates—Should we be online? Do social networking sites have anything to offer?—that individuals in the wider society have already resolved.

The essential challenge for congregations is this: In a digital world where community is possible online, what is the relevance of a brick-and-mortar congregation? The Internet’s success springs from a powerful longing for community—the very same force that drives congregations.
... The good news here, says Heidi Campbell (Texas A&M), is that congregational life and online life are not competing in a zero-sum game. If people go online to connect with other believers or deepen their faith, this activity does not mean a net loss for the congregation that those individuals might have turned to had the Internet not been available.

A friend, who is pastor of a mission-focused church in our district, recently wrote, “I’m fascinated with the thought of the church becoming a hub of spiritual transformation that builds networks of vibrant Christian community in our neighborhoods. I like the wonderful contrast between the old picture of the “net-work” the disciples left to follow Jesus and the new concept of network. The Verizon commercials about one being connected to the many could be the new picture of the church. I see Gospel in those commercials.” What Unseem and Campbell are saying is that this new network can take many forms that now reach beyond the brick and mortar barriers of our old concept of the church.

... “People are looking for relationships,” says Campbell. “They’re looking for places where they can care about people and feel cared for. They want a sense of connection, and not just on a Sunday. They want a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week connection to other people. They want an intimate community where they can be transparent with others and others can be transparent with them.”

The article is a thoughtful reflection, and goes on to explore some practical ways to make it work in your congregation; read the article in its entirety.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Navigators, Map Makers and Map Readers -- Part One

Eddie Gibbs, in his book, Leadership Next, wrote “The church needs navigators tuned to the voice of God, not map readers.” As I read that, I looked up at the old Japanese sextant that serves as a bookend on top of one of my bookcases. I’ve had it so long, I don’t remember how I got it or where it came from – probably a hand-me-down relic from WWII. Of course my very young friends, raised in an age of GPS and satellite navigation, don’t even know what it is. And when I explain how it is used by sighting the sun or stars and measuring the angle of ascent against the horizon, they recognize the skill and, sometimes, the “luck” involved. But such is the challenge and the “romance” of navigation.

The difference between a navigator and a map reader is this: Map readers are good at finding their way around in a known world. All you need is a compass and a plotting tool to find your way from one known point to another on a map of the known universe. Navigators, on the other hand, are able to explore the unknown. They do not need fixed points and compass. They rely on the heavens. They look upward for guidance, not down at a map.

Len Hjalmarson in his review of Gibbs’ book, writes: “Map readers, and navigators, are actually two different kinds of people (See Johnson, Who Moved My Cheese?) While it is possible to make map readers into navigators, it is not easy, and some will never make the transition. Map readers as leaders make good managers; navigators as leaders are explorers. Map readers love predictability; navigators enjoy complexity. Map readers are impatient with process; navigators enjoy the journey. Map-reading is a lonely vocation; navigators value company.”

At a recent meeting of our local circuit we talked about the difficulty of getting the members of our congregations to think in missional terms and to understand that we are moving into a time of great unknowns for our culture, our economy and our church. The truth is that we have lots of map readers who are good at finding their way around in the known world that used to be. Those people are important, for they are good managers. But we need more navigators—pastors and lay leaders who can look to the heavens and lead the way into the unknown. We also need something else that Gibbs does not mention. We need map makers. Map makers are people who can take the vision and direction pointed by the navigator and turn it into a practical pathway that others can follow. They make new maps for a newly discovered land.

In my experience, about 5% of the people are navigators. They see things others do not see and point directions for the new world in which we find ourselves. These people need community. They need to share ideas. And because they are navigators, they usually find one another out there in the unknown hanging around the blogs and the bookstores. You will find them on the links of places like Friend of Missional and Allelon. (See my link list) Another 15% are map makers. They are able to take the ideas they learn from listening to or reading the navigators and make practical application through the creation of a program or ministry that is able to transform the unique ministry they serve. These people need process, ideas and resources. The other 80% are map readers. They listen to the ideas of the navigators and then say, “Give me a map to get to this new land.” They want programs, study guides, schedules, ten steps to transformation. Both map makers and map readers are often well served by groups like Alban Institute and Center for Parish Development. (See my link list)

An example from my own denomination, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, is the Ablaze! Movement. (See my link list.) Ablaze is intended to be a “movement,” not a “program.”

Ablaze! is not a program or a campaign. It began as a mission vision with the hope of starting a mission movement. Each participating congregation, group, mission society, partner church, individual, etc. is challenged to pray about its own particular situation and the part of the mission endeavor it can impact and to design its own strategy to contribute to reaching 100 million people. LCMS World Mission is asking the church to develop mission models that work and can be shared with others. Ablaze! is not an answer…it’s an invitation!

“Visions” and “movements” are led by Navigators. “Strategies” are designed by Map makers to make the vision work in their situations. But often the big demand is for tactics, programs, and models that can be used by Map readers, and so at the end of an Ablaze! presentation, or listed on the FAQ website there will be the question, “How do I order one of those Ablaze! T-shirts?”.

The truth is that the church needs all three types of people. If we were all navigators, we would constantly explore new directions, but never establish settlements in the new worlds we have discovered. The navigator has probably not fully accomplished his task until the most entrenched map readers are ready to order T-shirts with a map of the new world.

But there is another sense in which “we need navigators tuned to God’s voice.” In Part Two we’ll take a further look at what that means.

Navigators, Map Makers and Map Readers -- Part Two: Magnetic Declination

Have you ever seen a map or nautical chart with the warning: “Not for navigational purposes!”? There are many reasons for that warning. There are lots of church programs and “how to” books upon which I would like to put that stamp. It doesn’t mean that the program does not work or that following the steps will not help your church grow. What it does mean is that they will not necessarily get you where God wants you to go or do it the way God wants you to do it.

One of the things that good map readers understand is that you can’t always trust every map. A navigator knows how to find true North by sighting off the star Polaris, but a map reader using a compass has to take into consideration something called “magnetic declination,” which is the variation between true North and magnetic North, a factor that varies according to your location on the globe. A good map will include a symbol of magnetic deviation (see picture), but some maps, while they look good and may appear to work well in a short distance, are truly “Not for navigational purposes.”

Too many pastors and lay leaders pick up programs (maps) that sound exciting and pragmatic, but are not fit for navigation because they are based on faulty navigation points. Or to put it in plain English, too many churches use programs that sound exciting and may even bring results without really checking on the theology behind them. If a book is a bestseller or a program is used by the church down the street, “Maybe we should use it here.”

Not every pastor has the skill and vision to be a navigator or map maker in the new missionary age in the sense of pointing the new directions for the church in the 21st century. But every pastor should have the skill to check those new directions and maps against the fixed navigational points of God’s Word.

In an earlier post (Twitter: The Gospel in 140 Characters or Less) I observed how many different theologies of salvation one could convey in 140 characters. I am a strong proponent of a missional church and of an emerging missional theology and ecclesiology, but even an emerging theology has certain fixed points. For Lutherans they remain Grace alone, Faith alone, Christ alone, Scripture alone. The “Twitter” experiment was, in my opinion, an example of how “open source theology” can produce maps “Not for navigational purposes.”

So, Eddie Gibbs is right, “The church needs navigators tuned to the voice of God, not map readers.” The church needs navigators to lead us into a new missionary age and it needs pastors and lay leaders who also have enough navigational skills to make sure we are on the right course.

Navigators, Map Makers and Map Readers -- Part Three: St. Brendan

My friends know I have a liking for what I consider to be great missional saints of old, most of whom my friends consider to be obscure pilgrims along the pathway of church history. All this talk about navigators and map makers brings to mind the great Irish saint, St. Brendan, often known as “Brendan the Navigator” or “Brendan the Bold”.

When I was a kid growing up in Staten Island, New York, there would occasionally (around Columbus Day) be an argument among my ethnic neighbors about who really discovered America. Few gave that honor to Columbus. The Italians claimed it was Giovanni da Verrazzano, who at least was the first to sail into New York harbor, supposedly on April 17, 1524. The Irish, on the other hand, claimed that it was St. Brendan, who a thousand years earlier (c. 540), had first laid foot on American soil, and that Columbus himself relied upon accounts of Brendan’s voyage.

Perhaps because the Italians significantly outnumbered the Irish in my neighborhood, or perhaps because of historical accuracy, the Italians won the argument, even to the point of naming the great bridge across the Narrows the “Verrazzano – Narrows Bridge”.

But St. Brendan still captures my imagination as one of the great navigators and missionaries of old. To sail the great Atlantic in a small boat with sixty pilgrims was an act of faith and a life of vulnerability. To be a navigator is to journey in a life of vulnerability, always trusting that the fixed points will be there and the journey will be guided. But many navigators have also found the truth of Alan Roxburgh’s statement “that what happens in vulnerability is where God’s future shows up.”

St. Brendan the Navigator understood his calling to walk in vulnerability, and he left us this prayer:

Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home? Shall I turn my back on my native land, and turn my face towards the sea?

Shall I put myself wholly at your mercy, without silver, without a horse, without fame, without honour? Shall I throw myself wholly upon You, without sword or shield, without food and drink, without a bed to lie on? Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under Your yoke?

Shall I pour out my heart to You, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness, tears streaming down my cheeks? Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach, a record of my final prayer in my native land?

Shall I then suffer every kind of wound that the sea can inflict? Shall I take my tiny boat across the wide sparkling ocean? O King of the Glorious Heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea?

O Christ, will You help on the wild waves?

Ten Reasons to Plant a New Church

One of the books I have been recommending lately, especially to my friends in judicatories, is David T. Olson’s The American Church in Crisis. It is a book filled with data, analysis and useful charts, as well as practical hints for changing the status quo.

While the missional church movement often concentrates on changing the culture of existing congregations, it is important for congregations, and especially judicatories, to be concerned about planting new congregations. ( For some challenges of renewing existing congregations see an earlier post on “Jumping the Missional Sigmoid Curve.”)

Following are ten reasons to plant a church, according to Olson. Do you agree with them?

1. New churches lower the age profile of the American church, increase its multiethnicity, and better position the whole church for future changes.

2. New churches provide synergistic benefits to established churches. Research shows that denominations that plant many strong churches have more healthy, growing, established churches than those who plant few churches.

3. The continued growth of new churches will extend up to 40 years after their start. The growth that occurs in years 10 to 40 is critical for creating a strong base of churches for the future.

4. New churches provide a channel to express the energy and ideas of passionate, innovative young pastors. Church planting encourages the development of the gifts of ministry and leadership. Denominations that plant few churches unintentionally focus on training pastors in stabilizing gifts. A denomination needs both stabilizing and expansionist gifts to be both healthy and growing.

5. New churches are the research and development unit of God’s kingdom. New churches create most of the current models and visions for healthy life. Healthy cultural adaptations and theological vitality occur more often in a denomination that excels at church planting, because the ferment of new ideas and ministry solutions is more robust.

6. New churches are the test laboratory for lay leadership development. Because top lay leadership positions are usually already filled in the parent church, new churches provide a new group of emerging lay leaders the opportunity to grow and develop as primary leaders. In new church plants that do well, most lay members report that being part of the beginning of the new church was one of the defining spiritual events in their life.

7. New churches are historically the best method for reaching each emerging new generation. While many established churches have the ability to connect with the younger cohort, each generation also seems to need their own new type of churches that speak the gospel with their own cultural values and communications style.

8. New churches are the only truly effective means to reach the growing ethnic populations coming to America. Every people group needs to hear the gospel in a way that makes sense to their culture. It is difficult for established churches to become diverse. Church planting can effectively create both ethnic-specific and multiethnic congregations.

9. New churches are more effective than established churches at conversion growth. Studies show that new churches have three to four times the conversion rate per attendee than established churches.

10. Because the large majority of Americans do not attend a local church, many more new churches are needed. In 2005, 17.5% of Americans attended a local church on any given Sunday. Seventy-seven percent of Americans do not have a consistent connection with a Christian church.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A Prayer for the New Year

John Greenleaf Whittier’s hymn, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” makes a fitting prayer for the New Year. Listen to this arrangement by the Westminster Abbey choir and congregation.

Whittier was an American Quaker who wrote this hymn as part of a poem in 1872. It is usually set to the British hymn tune, Repton, and has become one of the more popular hymns in the UK.

As we enter a chaotic year of economic, political, and military turmoil around the world, Whittier’s hymn, perhaps influenced by his Quaker values, ask for the inner calm and openness to hear the still voice of God in the midst of the turmoil.

A stanza that is often omitted, but one that is important for us who are moved to mission, is this one:

In simple trust like theirs who heard
Beside the Syrian sea
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word
Rise up and follow Thee.

Many arrangements can be found for this hymn, including one from the soundtrack of the 2007 movie, Atonement, but the congregational one seemed most appropriate. Nevertheless, here’s an interesting one played on a rope carillon.

Blessed New Year!